Here is a draft of a story I wrote for this Sunday’s Gazette, based on some reporting I did when I was in Biloxi last month and some follow-up reporting by telephone after returning to Cedar Rapids. For more on the recovery on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, check the coverage in the Sun Herald.
Biloxi, Miss. – Billboards along Interstate 10 tell the mixed story of a resort town fighting its way back. Most signs invite visitors to the casino shows of yesteryear’s stars (Johnny Mathis, Gladys Knight, Engelbert Humperdinck). But one billboard targets local residents, hundreds of whom still live in FEMA trailers. The sign informs the locals that new flood insurance maps are ready.
The communities of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast have spent nearly four years learning how difficult, demanding and slow disaster recovery can be.
Progress is most obvious in the glitzy hotels and their busy casinos – beeping, flashing and teeming with gamblers. Hurricane Katrina tossed Mississippi’s dockside casinos around like beach toys when it struck Aug. 29, 2005. State lawmakers quickly decided that gambling on solid land wouldn’t corrupt this state’s conservative folk any worse than floating casinos. So the new structures are built on sturdy, elevated concrete platforms, firmly rooted in the ground, even when they extend out over the water.
But drive west along Highway 90 from the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino and new buildings are outnumbered by bare foundations or once-magnificent homes where plywood windows block the views of the gulf.
“It’s dismal to see the slow pace that some of these homes are coming back,” said insurance agent Dave Treutel.
As vast as the devastation was in Eastern Iowa’s 2008 floods, it didn’t approach the magnitude of Katrina’s destruction. First-anniversary reports from the Federal Emergency Management Agency listed 564 Iowa households needing temporary housing units as a result of the 2008 floods and tornadoes, compared to 48,000 Mississippi families. FEMA still had 632 trailers providing “temporary” quarters in Mississippi this July 2 and another 1,796 families using Mississippi Cottages provided by the state.
The disasters can’t compare, said Cedar Rapids politician and flood victim Kathy Potts, who grew up in Mississippi and spent 11 years living on the Gulf Coast. When Potts visited her old home a year after Katrina, she was unable to tell where she was. “It just wiped everything out.”
Liz Joachim’s wholesale distribution business, Corso Inc., had not flooded in the 85 years since her father started the company, including 1969’s historic Hurricane Camille. Joachim didn’t have flood insurance, only wind insurance. Katrina destroyed one of her buildings and 26 trucks and left 18 inches of water in her warehouse, destroying $1.5 million worth of inventory. She lost $4 million, she says, but her wind insurance carrier blamed the losses on water, offering only $250,000 to cover wind damage.
That was a common lament for homeowners as well.
Treutel’s insurance-agency staff of 10 had 8,000 Katrina claims to process. In the hurricane’s aftermath, he learned that flood maps in the swiftly growing coastal area had not been updated in 20 years, meaning people were building in high-risk areas without knowing that they should have insurance. He is frustrated that Congress still has not passed legislation to modernize flood insurance.
While Congress rushed aid to Mississippi and Louisiana after Katrina much swifter than to Iowa, the struggle for federal money continues. “It does take a very, very long time to get that federal funding moving,” said Rhonda Rhodes, executive director of the Hancock Housing Resource Center in Bay St. Louis.
Two huge issues in Mississippi’s recovery pace have been building standards and getting insurance for new buildings. Some insurance companies have left the state; others have raised rates. The number of homeowners getting insurance from the state’s Wind Pool, which covers people who can’t get other insurance, has nearly tripled.
Mississippi Cottages will become permanent homes for about 1,100 families. The homes aren’t sturdy enough for the “velocity zones” close to the coast, but if you secure them to a foundation that’s high enough for current standards and find insurance, that can be your new home.
As housing stock is replenished, population is growing, but recent Census Bureau estimates show the towns of Biloxi, Gulfport, Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Long Beach each still with more than 3,000 fewer people than when Katrina hit.
Business recovery has been mixed, said Brian Sanderson, president of the Gulf Coast Business Council, who came to Des Moines last summer to brief government and business leaders on the recovery process. Manufacturing bounced back quickly and construction boomed. Retail sales actually rose as people bought new appliances and furniture. But many small businesses have struggled.
Snapper’s Seafood Restaurant, elevated on stilts with plenty of room underneath for parked cars or storm surge, stands out as one of the few non-casino businesses open along the beach. Katrina left a bare concrete slab where the business had operated since 1993.
Most of the 15 restaurants along the beach before Katrina reopened further inland if they came back at all, said David Mason, manager of the restaurant since 2002.
Before Snapper’s could rebuild, owner Mark Balius had to wait for new standards to be adopted (the restaurant is 20 feet above sea level, 8 feet higher than before). Because of overlapping jurisdictions, the restaurant needed to get city, county and state permits. The restaurant finally reopened in May.
Joachim, who supplies convenience stores and vending machines, once had 12 routes stocking vending machines. Now she has five. The mom-and-pop shops that were most of Corso’s wholesale customers “are slowly coming back,” Joachim said. “The ones that are open are doing well because there are so few of them.”
While casinos present the surest sign of progress, it’s been uneven. Gambling revenues in the first quarter of 2008 matched pre-Katrina levels, but 2009 revenues slumped with the economy. Construction at Harrah’s Margaritaville Casino stopped in the fall. It’s just a huge concrete platform on the beach, with colored banners bearing Jimmy Buffett lyrics and a promise of good times to come. While the project hasn’t been scrapped, Harrah’s has not said when construction will resume.
Real estate agent Mark Cumbest, an eighth-generation resident of the Gulf Coast and member of a state commission on recovery, said it’s more important to rebuild a community that can withstand the next hurricane than to rebuild fast. “We’ll have better planning, better construction, better zoning,” he said. “We’re going to be a much stronger Gulf Coast, a better-planned Gulf Coast.”
Though Rhodes is candid about the struggle the region faces, she isn’t discouraged. “It took 150 years to build this community,” she said. “We’ve only had four years to rebuild.”